Friday, February 17, 2006

The Season of Confusion

The season of confusion continues. My cohort at work and I will take turns going out to ski when the workload is light enough to allow these getaways. Today he took his tag out as a bike ride. We've done this before, but in late March or early April.

He set out into light rain showers. Heavier rain was due to arrive, but he decided to try his luck. That luck ran out when he was at the far end of his loop. Like the plucky soldier he is, he tacked on a little extra, since he was soaked anyway. Good lad. He was borderline hypothermic when he returned, but he gets the hero points.

I thought I might get to ski, so I didn't bring a bike, but the downpour and warm temperatures are rotting the snow as we watch. No hero points for me today.

This afternoon, the temperature is supposed to plunge, perhaps as fast as ten degrees an hour, as gale force winds bring gusts that could top 60 miles per hour.

One ski patroller reported lightning and thunder while she was out on the trail. It's just not a good day to be out doing anything.

After the deep freeze settles in we can expect gradually diminishing winds and grudgingly warming temperatures over the next several days. No new snow. Brutal cold. Conditions that tax the ingenuity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Comparing Sports on a Winter Ride

Usually, when I find myself riding one day and skiing cross-country the next, or even doing both in the same day, it happens at the end of ski season. This winter, though, I get to compare the activities side by side when neither is at its best.

A cyclist and a skier both flow through the landscape. When I have to choose an alternative to skiing I always hope I can ride. Running or hiking won't provide the same rhythm and glide.

Cycling and skiing each have their own rhythm. A skier works much harder on a climb, and steers more dynamically on a descent. Racers now talk in skiing terms when descending at speed, but rubber on a road does not act quite the same as a ski edge on snow. Cyclists can easily reach alpine ski speeds going down a hill, while Nordic skiers will get big thrills at lower speeds, on their light, fragile gear.

Using a fixed gear I keep the speed within a narrower range than I would if I used a bike that could coast at the full speed gravity would allow, or let me use bigger gears at will to sprint or draft trucks.

After skiing I feel warm for hours. Nordic skiing uses upper and lower body muscles, whereas cycling uses mostly the legs. I feel nicely cleansed after a good bike ride, but completely renewed from skiing.

Taking the fixed gear into the hills I can add some upper body effort to the workout, but it is hardly as complete as if I had been hammering on a set of ski poles for a couple of hours.

Because I am not getting to ski day after day, I have not developed all the upper body weight and strength I normally do. It's like starting the season over and over as conditions deteriorate and then return with each trivial snowfall. Alternating with brief periods of skiing I can snatch a few rides. These don't really build my cycling form, either. It's all way better than nothing, but it's just treading water. If I had serious athletic objectives it would really bug me. Instead I am just glad I can get out and do something.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Rudy Project Ekynox

I've been using these Rudy Project Ekynox sunglasses for two bike seasons and almost two ski seasons. That's if you charitably count what we've had this winter as a ski season.

Yes, they're outlandish looking, but they had the best field of view of any model I tried. People in cars give me a little extra room when I wear them.

The Rudy rep said, "You and Jan Ullrich are about the only people wearing those."

I never expected to hear that Jan Ullrich and I had anything in common except a tendency to overeat in the off season. And I catch myself grinding too big a gear on occasion, but Jan in the same gear would be spinning his brains out.

The smaller Ekynox SX does not cover the upper and lower areas as well. Riding in the drops I would be looking at the top of the frame, or over it, which defeats the purpose, especially since I need the prescription insert.

With the prescription insert I can use the stock Rudy outer lenses. My second choice, the Graal Fyol, used prescription lenses directly in the frame, so I would have had to buy multiple sets of expensive lenses.

Rudy Project names sound like they came out of the IKEA catalog. That's kind of annoying. But the glasses work well.

My prescription pushed the limit. According to the Rudy catalog and website, it exceeded it. But Omar the Prescription Guy assured me they could shoehorn my lenses into the insert and it would work.

My eye doctor warned me that the angle of the lenses in the isert would lead to prismatic distortion. Because I was getting a pro deal on the glasses, I figured it was worth the experiment. If they were awful I could put the outer glasses in stock and only have lost the price of the insert.

They were very weird at first. Shortly after I got them I took a 50-mile ride on a summer afternoon. I wanted to do a bit of a depletion ride to burn off some excess barbecue and ice cream, so I brought very little food. Late in the ride, burning reserves, the visual distortion reinforced the mental haze that goes with any depleting effort. I felt like I was watching a movie. It was bad enough when I was fresh. In the last few miles it was downright strange.

The human brain is an amazing thing. After a few more rides I could slap the glasses on and perceive the view as normal. I couldn't see the distortion even if I looked for it.

If you go for Rudy glasses with the prescription insert, be sure you get not only the prescription right, but the interpupillary distance. That one's a little hard to measure, but with the lenses pretty radically angled you don't want to miss it by much. I think my left eye doesn't quite line up with the optical center of the lens on that side.

The glasses came with dark gray lenses, but I use the polarized brown or the clear ones most of the time. Polarized lenses are excellent on water or snow. The clears are good for cloudy days, dusk, night skiing or skiing in snow. I keep meaning to get amber or light red lenses to improve contrast on flat light days.

Riding in heavy rain I did find that water collected between the outer lenses and the insert. If I know I might encounter heavy rain I will use my regular glasses. Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Winter Overhauls

'Tis the season when virtuous cyclists rip their trusty steeds apart to cleanse and anoint them with fresh lubricants.

Yep, time to regrease all the bearings we can get at.

Yep. Sure is.

Back when I had one racing bike, high ideals and no job to speak of, I devoted myself religiously to bike maintenance. As with so many things, like weight training or dental hygiene, I didn't really love the work, but I loved the result.

In the era of cup-and-cone bearings you could actually open up for maintenance, experts advised a full overhaul after any long ride in heavy rain. Want to keep those expensive parts in perfect condition? You know what you must do.

Picture me ignoring my half-dressed, sunbathing girlfriend while I dutifully completed a radical greasectomy on my racing bike, the sunny day after a race in a downpour. She was a rider, but she questioned my priorities in that instance.

Mountain biking ushered in the new age of sealed bearings for the masses. But no bearing is perfectly sealed and some of the so-called sealed units can still be opened for overhaul. Sometimes you find that the seals hold water in as well as out. But things generally run smoother for longer these days.

Long experience from the road had already shown that there were people who rode bikes really fast and there were people who maintained bikes really well, but they were rarely the same people. Unless you are completely subsidized you don't have time to do a thorough job on bike maintenance and a thorough job on training. That's why teams have mechanics.

People who fix bikes may ride more mileage and perform better than the average person, or even the average rider. I still know a number of amateur racers who do their own work. There are also top-quality mechanics who chain-smoke and eat nothing but garbage.

These days I only do a complete overhaul on a bike if its owner has paid me to do it. On my own bikes I do spot overhauls of whatever has become crunchiest. I use Shimano's disposable bottom brackets because I've never scraped together the coin for Phil Wood's immortal units. Nothing else on any of my bikes uses bearings I can't dig into whenever I find the time.

Needle-bearing headsets have eliminated the annoying center notch that ball bearing headsets typically develop. They still need to be opened and cleaned occasionally, but that's easy enough. Needle bearing sets don't spew out all over the floor the way loose ball bearings do.

Putting it that way, it's really only hubs and headset. Okay, okay. Maybe I'll do it. Next week.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hitting the Window

(to the tune of "Jambalaya")

Jam your gear and have no fear of dirt-road gumbo.

It was your choice to take this ride, you addicted dumbo.

Take your lumps, you biking chump, and don't look back.

You could have stayed at home and done the Nordic Track.

Weather has permitted a couple of rides. Yesterday the morning and early afternoon rain gave way to partly sunny skies. As I hammered along the shoulder of Route 25 with a tailwind, a guy on a motorcycle coming the other way gave me a big wave. Yeah. We bad.

The warm, wet weather had thawed the dirt roads so they no longer had their solid winter surface. Streaks of ice hung on in places, but most of the rest felt like riding on two flat tires. Gobs of wet grit flew up despite the fenders.

One of my favorite dirt roads traverses a spruce and tamarack bog. Before the town built it up with more dirt you could see its history in the fragments of different surfaces. It had once been a corduroy road of tree trunks laid side by side. Later, in a sketchy attempt at improvement, road crews had simply laid asphalt over the tree trunks. When that inevitably failed, they went back to dumping gravel on it to keep it barely above the water level of the bog. Somehow, miraculously, the water never seemed to overwhelm the road entirely.

A couple of years ago the town built up the surface quite a bit, though they left it dirt. It took some of the fun out of it. But we've had so much rain since autumn that now the water laps at the road again. What surface remains is just a chain of potholes in chocolate pudding. I missed the old corduroys. They at least would have stopped my tires from sinking so far in.

Anyone idiotic enough to go out on a bike in the winter, even a mild winter, is obviously looking for adventure, so I have no right or desire to complain. Most of the 21-mile route was paved anyway.

Today the temperature had dropped ten degrees and the wind had come up about 20 knots. I planned the route so I could enjoy that godly tailwind along Route 25 for more than six miles. The highway is about as flat as any road in New Hampshire. Riding the gusts made me think of "Ride of the Valkyries" and the noisier and more boisterous movements in pieces like Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony (the Italian) and Beethoven's Seventh.

Dressing is tricky in cold windy weather. There's no way to avoid perspiring, especially grinding into a headwind. I did about four miles of grinding at the start, to get to the part where I got to exploit the tailwind. Starting dry, that was just a good warmup.

Turning downwind felt like climbing into a capsule and shutting it. Suddenly there was no wind and I did not have to work at all to maintain 18-20 miles per hour in a 63-inch gear. Even though the clouds had closed back in I felt warm.

The wind helped keep the roads dry. The cold night before had stiffened the dirt roads again, though not to full hardness. It was good enough, and better than the previous day. Snow squalls blotted out the view of the high peaks to the north, and most of the lower peaks disturbingly closer, but only one ever came all the way through to fall on me. It's atmosphere.

On windy days I like to try to do all the upwind first and finish with a tailwind, but that gives me few options around here. The next best choice is to make the parts against the wind as indirect as possible, taking roads at an angle and seeking tree cover. That allows for some very pleasant routes that are basically downwind from home.

Aside from a few highlights, often the best part of a winter ride is finishing it. However, I am still an idiot, and the forecast looks good for one more masochistic outing tomorrow before I go back to work. If Nordic ski conditions continue to disappoint us, what else do I have?